Austin Butler was discovered at a county fair at age 12 and cut his teeth with roles on tweenage sitcoms on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and teen soap operas on The CW. It's perhaps not the resumé you would expect from someone who was studying the work of James Dean and Marlon Brando on Turner Classic Movies and honing his craft in acting classes, but as Butler says, "Acting is really the core of my life."
In 2018, he had an opportunity to prove his mettle when he made his Broadway debut opposite Denzel Washington in the revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. That led to working with auteur filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino (in 2019's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, in which he has a supporting role playing Manson Family murderer Tex Watson) and Baz Luhrmann, playing the title role in the maximalist musical biopic, Elvis. When the actor was cast in the latter, he recalls, "It really felt as though my career was on the line. Like, my life was on the line."
Instead, Butler received his first Oscar nomination playing the King of Rock and Roll. "It really means so much to me," he says. "It was an unbelievable privilege to get to experience things that nobody has experienced as authentically to what Elvis actually did. I mean, that experience is something I will never forget for the rest of my life."
Following Elvis, Butler signed on for Jeff Nichols' The Bikeriders and Denis Villeneuve's Dune: Part Two, in which he plays Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen. "I feel very fortunate that I've had the opportunity to work with the people that I have recently," he shares. "In Bikeriders, getting to watch Michael Shannon work, or acting with Christopher Walken in Dune, I pinch myself every day that I'm getting to have these experiences."
Still, "I'll be honest, everything's been moving so fast that I haven't fully had that moment to breathe," Butler admits. "So, that's what I plan on doing: I'm going to go away, and hopefully leave for about a month, and not do anything. And turn my phone off, and just be in nature, and try to use that as a time to reflect on this whole journey, and relish in the gratitude of the journey that this has been. But then, also look at films, and read, and just try to feel where I'm inspired to go next."
"I know that I would rather work less and be able to invest every bit of myself than to try to pack projects back-to-back and not be able to give everything," he adds. "I'd rather go after things that really scare me, that cause me to go right to the edge of what I think is possible in myself. That's what I want to go after."
Below, Butler shares with A.frame the five films that were most formative to him as the actor that he is today.
Directed by: Elia Kazan | Written by: Paul Osborn
I saw East of Eden when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old. It was just as I was starting to have the spark of wanting to become an actor, and watching James Dean really blew my mind. I watched that film every day for a week. It was an obsession of mine. Later on, I heard the thing about Dean, that on one hand you had Montgomery Clift saying, 'Help me,' and on the other hand, you had Marlon Brando saying, 'F**k you.' And in the center, there was James Dean, this sort of cocktail of both.
He was just so animalistic. He's so incredibly present, and I find that absolutely compelling. And I could easily say Rebel Without a Cause or Giant as well, but I remember seeing East of Eden first, and watching it every day for a week.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin
I was torn between saying Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy or Mean Streets. But Raging Bull, I went with my father when I was very young. We went to the Egyptian Theater, and that's the first time that I saw it — on the big screen. It's that collaboration between young De Niro and Scorsese. It's just incomparable the amount of talent and inspiration that I've felt from those films, and particularly with Raging Bull, because the dedication that he had to that part is so endlessly inspiring to me. The freedom that I see when I watch him, the subtlety that he can have, and then, moments of explosion. And it's so incredibly dynamic. I cannot take my eyes off of him. Today, we may take it for granted more, but it's really the first of its kind where they pause filming and he gains that weight. So, even the physical investment that he had in that film is really inspiring.
And it's just beautifully shot. I love the music. I love the black-and-white, and it's also in the context of the other films that they were making around that time. So, when you're looking at the transformation between Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, King of Comedy, Mean Streets, and New York, New York — I also love that film — in such a relatively short period of time, to see that range between one actor and director is just unfathomable, and really, truly inspiring to me.
Written and directed by: John Cassavetes
I was torn between A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. John Cassavetes is truly one of the masters of cinema. I'm so inspired by his style of filmmaking — just the honesty, how raw it is, how heartbreaking it can be in the mundanity of life — and the performance by Gena Rowlands is out of this world. She is such a force of nature, and I can watch that movie thousands of times and find something else that she did that is so brilliant and inspiring. Peter Falk, as well, is amazing.
When you're watching acting that doesn't feel like acting — when it doesn't even slightly feel like acting, it just feels like you're a fly on the wall watching human beings — that's the thing that I feel when I watch Cassavetes. And I want to work that way so badly. I love doing big spectacle films, but lately, I've been craving more and more that sort of way of working. Another one of my favorite films is Blue Valentine, and I think that, in a modern sense, it has a lot of the same energy that I experienced when I watched John Cassavetes films. I just love that raw exploration of the human condition so much.
Written and directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Pulp Fiction was really my introduction to Quentin. I saw it before I saw Reservoir Dogs, and as a 12-year-old kid, it was the first time that it dawned on me what a brilliant screenwriter can do. Before that, I'd always seen a film as this one experience. I didn't fully process that somebody was having to write the words, and somebody was having to make a decision of where to put the camera, and somebody was having to make a decision of who to cast in these roles, and so on and so forth. But with the writing in particular, it spawned this deep love of the writer for me.
One of my mentors is Larry Moss, and that's a big thing that he's instilled in me from a young age: As an actor, especially in the theater, you're honoring the writer. That is our job, to honor the writer and to serve the story. But that was my first experience with really having such a deep respect for that writing, because it's so funny and brilliantly crafted in the way that he's able to connect all these stories of these different characters. The pop cultural references and the rhythm that he writes in really sparked my young brain at that time. But then, on top of that, you have the imagery of the film, and the acting that is so incredibly captivating and rich. It's just such a rich film.
And then, on top of that, you have the soundtrack, and one of Quentin's genius qualities is his taste in music. When we were filming Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, the jukebox that was in the house that Leo's character lives in was Quentin's own personal jukebox. While we were rehearsing, I was in that house for weeks leading up to us filming. There was this thing of quarters, so I'd put a coin in and [choose from] all these songs that are on the jukebox. It's all in Quentin's handwriting. That was when I first discovered 'Trouble Man' and a lot of incredible songs. He has such great taste of music.
Written and directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson is my absolute hero, and there's nothing that he's done that I haven't felt like a kid in a candy store when I get to experience his work. I could easily say There Will be Blood or Punch-Drunk Love or Boogie Nights or Phantom Thread or so many films. But Magnolia was my first experience of really falling in love with one of PTA's films. It's such a feat to be able to bring all those characters together into one story. And I think it's one of Tom Cruise's best performances.
The scene by the bedside with his father, played by the amazing Jason Robards, is one of the most heartbreaking scenes I've seen in any film. The story that I heard was that Tom Cruise came in and had sort of rewritten that monologue. And so, Philip Seymour Hoffman said that he was actually crying in that moment because he was so moved by what Tom was doing. It's just amazing the performances that he's able to capture in that film: William Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore, and John C. Reilly. It's such an inspiring feat in the art of cinema. I feel so privileged to be alive at the same time that Paul Thomas Anderson is alive.